U.S. Representatives Frank Pallone  (D-NJ) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a bill Wednesday that would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set safety standards for arsenic and lead in juices.  

The “Arsenic Prevention and Protection from Lead Exposure in Juice Act of 2012” or “APPLE Juice Act of 2012” is in response to a Consumer Reports investigation that found levels of arsenic and lead that exceeded the federal standards for drinking water in 10 percent of apple and grape juice samples tested in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

As the lawmakers note, both arsenic and lead are known to affect brain development in children. Both toxins are pervasive in the environment — both naturally occurring and the result of pesticide use, emissions and other industrial and agricultural chemicals. In both cases, the federal government has set a safety threshold for drinking water but not for juice.

The APPLE Juice Act would require that FDA establish standards for fruit juices within two years.

“The unacceptable levels of arsenic and lead in juices currently sitting on shelves at the supermarket present a danger for our children and their health,” said Pallone. “Setting basic standards for arsenic and lead in products whose consumers are primarily children is not only the right thing to do, it will help give parents the peace of mind that the juices their children drink daily are safe.”

DeLauro, who often takes a lead on food safety issues in the House, said she was proud to join Pallone in introducing the bill.

“We must ensure that the juices our children drink are safe, particularly when 70 percent of the apple juice we consume comes from China,” said DeLauro. “It is our job, and the FDA’s job, to ensure the health and safety of the American people. This legislation will help to make that happen.”

As the lawmakers noted in their announcement, though pediatricians often recommend that children limit their daily juice intake, 35 percent of children under five drink more juice than recommended.

“This bill will go a long way in protecting the public, especially children, from being exposed to these toxins.  We’re grateful for this effort to ensure the public’s health and safety are protected,” said Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.

The bill comes just a few months after there was heightened public awareness about arsenic in the fall. Popular TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz reported that some top-selling brands of apple juice were laced with high levels of inorganic arsenic. As Food Safety News reported then, most news reports were skeptical about the public health risk, especially after the FDA called the claim irresponsible.

Consumers, nonetheless, were concerned.

A few months after the Dr. Oz story aired, Consumer Reports released testing results that seemed to back up the claim that a small percentage of apple juice might have higher levels of inorganic arsenic than previously thought.

Consumer Reports tested 88 samples of apple juice and grape juice purchased in three states and found that 10 percent had total arsenic levels exceeding the federal standards of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for arsenic in drinking water, and that most of the arsenic “was the type called inorganic, which is a human carcinogen.” The tests also found that 25 percent of the juice tested had lead levels higher than the 5 ppb limit for bottled water.

The FDA says its “level of concern” for heavy metals in juices is anything above 23 ppb. The agency maintains that there is no threat to public health but testing has been stepped up.

“With respect to arsenic in apple juice, we’re looking hard at whether we need a different, more stringent number to guide our action in regard to arsenic in juice,” said Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at FDA, in a recent interview with Food Safety News. “We need to be vigilant on these issues and I think we’re making the right efforts to do that.”